Sacred Arts On the Move

A traveling art exhibit, “Contemplating the Sacred: Religious Works of Contemporary Artists,” is appearing at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., through April 15. Accompanied by an associated symposium, and co-sponsored by The Catholic University of America, the exhibit is the first major work of the new Foundation for Sacred Arts. The Register’s Dana Lorelle spoke with James Flood, executive director of the foundation.

What is the format of the exhibit?

The medium is painting, drawing and sculpture. It’s made up of 35 works of nine artists from around the country as well as one from Canada and one from Rome. The artists were selected two ways. Initially, it was through word of mouth. We selected two curators, both of them on the board of the foundation, and they selected certain artists and pieces. We also placed advertisements asking for submissions.

What do you hope to accomplish with the exhibit?

We hope that intellectuals — and this is partly why we do the symposiums — will begin to cogitate on the idea of combining new creativity with the age-old Christian message. We also hope that artists, especially young artists, will see examples of serious artists doing serious art that is seriously Catholic and Christian. And we hope to stimulate an interest in art on a national basis and provide support for the foundation’s mission to evangelize culture through the fine arts and give glory to God through art.

Where else will the art exhibit be showcased?

After Catholic University it will be stopping at the Archdiocese of Denver through the summer. We’re hoping it can make a stop in Baltimore before it goes to Denver. We’re looking at the West Coast in late fall through Christmas. In early 2006 we’ll be in Orlando at the Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine.

How do you define “sacred art?”

The strict sense of the term relates to art in the service of the liturgy, and the Foundation for Sacred Arts certainly embraces that sphere. There are a lot of special concerns related to art in the service of the liturgy. Now, the foundation also embraces a wider sense of that term, when the term sacred is used in a more general way to include any art that has religious content. That would be music for performance, art that may not be quite appropriate for liturgical use but that would be very uplifting for the home or a gallery or, say, a hospital.

Why concentrate on the fine arts?

We focused on the fine arts because of the connection to the intellectual world. They tend to be way ahead of the cultural curve; often we can see a change in the fine arts before the same change occurs in popular culture. The problem today is that the message of the arts, in a very strong way, has become a message that is contrary to Christianity. We want to reclaim the fine arts for the glory of God and stimulate a new movement in the art world.

What type of movement?

What I would like to see is creative people — artists, composers, writers — feeding off each other but guided by a sound Christian/Catholic theology and philosophy. I would like to see a surge of creativity that will lend credibility to the depth and profundity of the Catholic faith, and that will draw and attract people to it. That’s what the arts do. We need orthodox Catholics who think in more poetic terms because this is going to attract a large segment of people to the truth.

How does the movement you envision fit with Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists?

I read the Pope’s letter sometime after I had had the idea for the foundation. It was clear in his letter that the Holy Father felt the need to write it because art has an impact on humanity and art is a means of communication; therefore, it is a means for communicating God’s revelation. Whereas God’s revelation was first communicated through the Word written and spoken, that Word can also be communicated through a variety of means in the arts. And the arts can extend the reach of the meaning of the Word to reach parts of our hearts, of our spirit, of our mind that are not easily reached by just the written or spoken word. That was God’s design — to reach parts of our soul that are on another plane.

How do you know that there’s an audience for contemporary religious art?

There’s a lot of enthusiasm about this kind of art. My hope is that we are not reaching just Catholics and other Christians, but people from all backgrounds.

What is the first step toward making religious art revered once again?

We’ve got to engage talented people to actually do it, and we need to inspire churches and the public to purchase and commission it. I think these talented people will need guidance because there’s a lot of ideological baggage that goes along with artistic training in all the spheres of the arts. That ideological baggage runs contrary to Thomistic ideas of truth, beauty and goodness. So we need to recapture an authentic Christian philosophy of art. People like [Dietrich] von Hildebrand, Josef Pieper and Jacques Maritain — these are recent philosophers who can communicate these kinds of principles to the contemporary artists.

The Christian artist today has no place to go. He’s really kind of lost. He may distance himself from the art world because he feels out of sync with its values. As a result, he’s lacking artistic education and formation from peers.

Another problem Christian artists run into is that they more or less absorb the values of the secular art world today and then attempt to combine those postmodernist aesthetics — which have a tendency toward the bizarre and the shocking — with Christianity. It’s a little bit like trying to combine oil and water. Another problem they run into is just falling in with the idea that doing specifically religious content is somehow outside of the bounds of good taste.

We don’t want to go backwards; we don’t want to imitate art from the past because those were “the good old days.” We simply want to recapture this line of development that they had. The art of old that we revere today was not old when it was created. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Mozart — they were original in their day. So we’re not talking about going backwards. We’re talking about being 21st century and coming up with an art that is unique to today, and that is mainly up to the artists.

Christian artists live in this culture. They have their own God-given, poetic intuition and they’re going to come up with something original, and I’m just waiting to see what it is. But being original never meant sacrificing the principles of truth, beauty and goodness. Nor should it now.

Dana Lorelle writes from

Cary, North Carolina.


Foundation for Sacred Arts

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.